José Vicente, chancellor of Zumbi dos Palmares University speaks with student Fábio dos Santos © Ricardo Lisboa for the FT

Fábio dos Santos is a 21-year-old black student of business administration and a trainee at a bank. Recently running a little late for work, he called a cab from a ride-hailing app.

“Do they let you in at the bank with those curls?” said the driver of his Afro hairstyle. Mr dos Santos ignored him. That evening, in suit and tie, he rushed to university. As he left the metro, a white man stopped him: “A black man in a suit and a tie?”

Mr dos Santos ignored that, too. Such episodes are frequent, he says, but are in no way curtailing his ambition: “After my degree I want to read for an MBA and then work my way up at JPMorgan.”

According to Brazil’s institute of geography and statistics, black Brazilians earn 44 per cent less than whites. A 2016 study by the Instituto Ethos and the Inter-American Development Bank showed that black people, despite comprising the majority of the population, occupy only 6.3 per cent of management positions and 4.7 per cent of executive posts in Brazil’s 500 largest companies.

“That is a stunningly small number,” says Pedro Jaime, a sociologist and author of Black Executives: Racism and Diversity in the Corporate World. As for black people in executive positions, he adds that Brazil’s figures are worse than those of the US or South Africa.

Some attribute this to Brazil being the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, 130 years ago. Estimates point to between 3.6m and 4.7m Africans being brought to the country as slaves. Today, 56 per cent of Brazil’s almost 208m people define themselves as “black”, making for the world’s second largest black population after Nigeria.

But few black Brazilians occupy top positions. “Brazil is a country where the blacks are invisible, meaning they are not properly represented in a democratic way in all sectors of national life,” says Kabengele Munanga, a Congolese professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo.

In 1930s, the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre argued that Brazil’s mixed breeding between white masters and black slaves produced a sort of ethnic democracy. Yet Brazil’s race question has always been vexatious, with darker-skinned people consistently tending to be poorer than whites.

Things have started to change in recent years. While affirmative action has been controversial in the US, such measures have found fertile ground in Brazil. State institutions and public universities have established quotas for black workers and students.

Fábio dos Santos
Fábio dos Santos aims to work his way up at JPMorgan and help to bring change

Additionally, differing skin colour is a growing source of pride. Brazilians sometimes refer to varying skin tones with an array of terms, like “cinnamon” or “chocolate”. More and more biracial people also identify themselves as “browns”.

Some companies are starting to catch up with these trends. Itaú, the Brazilian bank; John Deere, the agricultural machinery company; and consultants McKinsey, for example, have diversity programmes.

“Diversity is not just the right thing to do,” says Patrícia Santos of EmpregueAfro, an executive search agency for black professionals. “It is the smart thing to do.”

A 2018 McKinsey study shows companies with the most ethnically and culturally diverse executive teams are 33 per cent “more likely” to outperform others on profitability. But, as an example, with just 20 black people among its 540 employees in Brazil, McKinsey itself still has much to do, says its local head, Nicola Calicchio.

The market system itself, he adds, will not fix this. “The invisible hand did not work, so we need to have a visible hand.”

That role is played by Flávia Garcia, a black woman and the firm’s diversity and inclusion manager for Latin America.

Similar to Mr dos Santos, she has stories of prejudice to tell. While working as the only black consultant at McKinsey in Brazil, she once tried to walk into a meeting with executives at a client’s headquarters but was stopped by a security guard on grounds of her colour and directed to a different entrance.

Because the percentage of black people at Brazilian universities is quite low, a key problem she faces is finding well-trained professionals and retaining those who feel out of place.

Ms Garcia recalls that, as a business student at a private university in São Paulo in 2000, she felt “very much alone” as one of only two black students.

Rachel Maia © Ricardo Lisboa for the FT

Rachel Maia is a trained accountant who rose through the ranks of the luxury goods market to become Brazil chief of two global jewellers, Tiffany and Pandora. She is now coaching promising black workers “who want to understand how to achieve seniority”.

“There is still a need to stop and look in order to understand that we are no longer in the period of slavery,” she says. She senses that she is part of a process of “turning to a new page that will be written by the coming generations”.

Mr dos Santos, meanwhile, is set on becoming part of that. His banking work by day helps him gain experience and pay for his business degree studies at night. His determination sees off the racist slurs.

“I have to have a vision and acquire knowledge,” he says. “I am not going to lower myself to the level of someone who insults.”

Zumbi dos Palmares university: the college that is offering black Brazilians affordable business degrees

Jose Vicente, chancellor of the Faculdade Zumbi dos Palmares
Shifting the balance: José Vicente, chancellor of Zumbi dos Palmares. The university aims to correct racial inequality in Brazil © Ricardo Lisboa

Pictures and slogans of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela line the walls, but this is not the US of 1964 or South Africa 30 years later. It is today’s Brazil, at the campus of Zumbi dos Palmares university, which has a black student intake of about 80 per cent.

Named after a 17th century Brazilian resistance leader, it aims to correct the racial inequality of Latin America’s largest country, which is home to more people of African origin than any nation outside Africa. The university was founded in 2003.

Its chancellor, José Vicente, says that back then, black Brazilians comprised just 3 per cent of students at Brazil’s universities. Today, he adds, that number has reached 17 per cent, which makes for “a qualified critical mass of students that is competent, conscious and with a fantastic capacity for asserting their rights”.

With an initial investment of R$2m ($600,000 at today’s exchange rate) the university started with 200 students studying for business administration degrees. The university now offers 10 degree courses, undergraduate and postgraduate, to 1,600 students from a low-income background.

Thanks to a monthly cost of R$548 ($155) for a four-year bachelor’s business administration degree course, “Zumbi” has become an affordable choice for many people. In comparison, the fee at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, the leading school of business administration in São Paulo, is R$4,350 ($1,240).

The Zumbi campus, located in a former São Paulo sports club, bustles during evening classes. Most of the students work during the day. “I very much like the way we are treated here,” says Brenda Brito, a 20-year-old law student who by day works as a cleaner. “You do not feel the racism one generally feels in Brazil.”

Mr Vicente says Zumbi has secured traineeships and internships for many students at some of Brazil’s biggest companies, such as Bradesco bank.

Price Nalutaaya, a 36-year-old law student, arrived four years ago from Pretoria, speaking no Portuguese. “Brazilians and South Africans are equally racist,” she says. But thanks to this university, “I feel I have a future here. There are opportunities.” AS

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